Archive for April, 2020

War on Christmas

A Parliamentary soldier breaks up a Christmas celebration, ca. 1645.

Remember the alleged War on Christmas that Fox News pounds every year in order to pour gasoline on the flames of the Culture Wars? For about two decades Bill O’Reilly, formerly one of the chief strategists of the victimhood racket that is Fox’s War on Christmas, used this non-existent war to sell the two products that his viewers simply couldn’t get enough of: grievance and rage.

What does the War on Christmas have to do with the present push to reopen the U.S. economy?

For that, we go back once again to the period of the English Civil Wars (plural), which, believe it or not, is a nearly inexhaustible source of information for understanding the United States in the 21st century.

Christmas in seventeenth-century England would be very recognizable to contemporary Americans. Churches, homes and other buildings were decorated with holly and ivy. Religious services on Christmas Day were well-attended. Gifts were exchanged with family and friends. If you were in one of the well-off social classes, you’d give Christmas boxes with little gifts and sweets to your servants, your tradesmen and maybe even the poor. Just as in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the holiday dinner was a great feast, with bumpers of brown ale, roast beef, ‘plum-pottage’ and minced pies. One of the favorites was a block of Stilton cheese submerged in that brown ale, and, if reports are believed, this dish gave off an aroma as pungent as that of an un-emptied chamber pot at mid-morning. People danced, sang, played card games and went to see plays and mummer parades. These plays were hardly morality tales. The biggest difference, of course, was that their Christmas celebrations went on for twelve days, which is where we get that repetitive partridge and pear tree carol that’s still with us today. (Maybe the idea was to take a swig of ale for each of the twelve days and see if you were still upright at the end of the song.)

None of this sat well with the Puritans running the Commonwealth. To them, the celebration of Christmas was nothing more than “a popish festival with no Biblical justification,” an excuse for “wasteful and immoral behaviour…with the [t]rappings of popery and rags of the beast.”

So in 1644 the Puritan-led Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas and, by law, replaced it with a day of fasting and prayerful contemplation. Soldiers patrolled the streets of London breaking up any parties and seizing any food they suspected was for a Christmas meal.

What’s important for today’s coronavirus crisis is that the Puritans ordered all shops and markets to stay open throughout the 25th of December and the eleven other days of Christmas. This was a signal failure of the Commonwealth. The shops and businesses didn’t re-open, and the citizenry didn’t leave their homes to patronize England’s commercial establishments. More importantly, the Puritans created an undying ill will against them for trying to take Christmas away from the English people. The Puritans’ Old Testament sentiments undoubtedly contributed to H.L. Mencken’s definition: “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

There’s a lesson here for Trump, who thinks that, following his abject failure to prepare for and meet the Covid-19 crisis, he can reopen the economy by fiat. When a government attempts something beyond its reach, most likely it will not just fail, but will produce a result directly opposite to that which it wants to achieve.

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King Charles I of England/ Studio of Van Dyck

Trump now claims that he has the power to adjourn Congress so that he can make appointments without the advice and consent of the Senate.

Have we seen this movie before?

Charles I of England fought with Parliament over whether the latter would impose taxes he thought necessary. Charles dissolved Parliament, solely on his own authority, three times, the last of which was in 1629. The period of his reign from 1629 through 1640, when he had little choice but to summon what became known as the Long Parliament, is often called Charles’ period of personal rule.

Regarding Trump’s claim of power to adjourn Congress, it’s worthwhile noting that in 1641 the Long Parliament pressured Charles into signing something called An Act Against Dissolving Parliament Without Its Consent. Not surprisingly, this law provided that Parliament could not be dissolved without its own consent.

Our own Founding Fathers knew by heart all of the events from Charles’ ascension to the English throne, through the Protectorate, and into 1660, the year of the Restoration. The English Civil Wars (plural) were constantly before them when they were drafting the United States Constitution. In fact, some of them had ancestors who were either Roundheads or Cavaliers. One shouldn’t be surprised at how closely the office of President of the United States parallels that of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell.

Given this background, you can bet that the Constitutional terms under which Congress can be adjourned without its own consent are narrow and quite specific.

Trump doesn’t take advice, and he hardly knows American history, much less English. He’d undoubtedly like the term “personal rule.” But before he continues to assert his right to adjourn Congress on his word alone, he’d do well to learn a little more about Charles I — he didn’t end up ahead of the game.

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Trump Pout 4

The silence of Republicans in the face of Trump’s statement that he has “total control” over when and how the several states decide to lift their Covid-19 lockdown orders is a telling indicator of their hypocrisy.

If we turn the clock back almost exactly six years from today, we find Republicans going into the 2014 midterm elections with a new rallying cry: the “Imperial Presidency” of Barack Obama. This two-word claim was based largely on their complaints about Obamacare. For example, Republican Representative Paul Broun (GA, 10th Dist.) complained that Obama’s was “a government that has just totally left the bounds of our U.S. Constitution.”

Conservative Republicans’ belief in a strictly limited federal government is almost religious. A federalist system in which there is a clear and strong division of authority between the federal government and the governments of the several states is central to their philosophy. (Democrats and mainstream independents also believe in this, but they don’t beat their drums about it every day.) In order of sanctity, Republicans rank the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reserves to the states all rights and powers not granted to the federal government, second only to the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms.

Then this past Monday, April 13, Trump stood at the podium in the White House press briefing room and said: “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s gotta be.”

Just think of how contrary to core Republican beliefs Trump’s claim is. It’s as if the Emperor Constantine had announced to all the citizens of Byzantium that he was converting from Christianity BACK to paganism.

For three-plus years Trump has provided almost daily reminders that he is an unbridled despot by temperament and aspires to be an unbridled despot by position. For example, he’s stated that he wants to change the libel laws so he can sue the news media when they say something unfavorable about him. His cabinet secretaries must bow down and worship his magnificent leadership.

But today’s Republicans have all drunk deep the sweet poison of servility. They must seek Trump’s permission to raise their eyes above the level of his shoelaces, so don’t expect to see a lot of them complaining about any Imperial Presidency of Trump. Republicans should remember, though, that despots are like those science fiction aliens that invade the body: they rip those bodies to shreds when they leave (and it’s usually right through the rib cage).

They should also advert to the consequences of their silence. Qui tacet consentire videtur, ubi loqui debuit ac potuit. (He who is silent, when he ought to have spoken and was able to, is taken to agree). Republicans’ silence is their agreement with Trump’s wannabe despotism.

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Places You'll Go

Note how young McGurk’s placement of elephants complies with CDC recommendations on social distancing.

Oh, the Places You Won’t Go!
by Paul G. Neilan (styled after Dr. Seuss)

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
And you thought you could go
Any direction you choose.

But then something happened
To up-end your plan:
Folks started dying
In a place called Wuhan.

With your shoes full of feet and your head full of brains,
You shouldn’t have to worry ’bout buses and planes.
In Wu-han things happen, and frequently do,
To folks who eat bats and pangolins too.

You never eat bat, so no need to take fright.
Kudlow said “We’ve contained this, pretty close to airtight.”
And the president asked “Why the long faces?
“It’s one guy from China, and just fifteen cases.
“I alone can fix it,” said Trump, like a hero.
“Inside of a week, I’ll bring that to zero.”
Our very stable genius said “Yes, we’re the best!
“And anybody who wants to can get their own test!”

Then Trump got real testy, and nasty, and grouchy
When warnings kept coming from Anthony Fauci.
Fauci said, “Of test kits we’ll need to get millions,
“Or the economy stands to lose multiple trillions.
But his warnings fell on deaf ears autocratic,
Which can happen when spreaders are a-symptomatic.

“Mr. Trump,” Fauci said, “it’s a danger, it’s a fact.
“You’ve got to trigger the Defense Production Act.
“I’m sorry to say, sir, but sadly, it’s true,
“That plagues and pandemics can happen to you.
“We’ll get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch
“With the GDP cratered and the Dow in a lurch.”

Then Trump said to Fauci “Don’t worry, don’t stew.
“Each year tens of thousands die from the flu.
“No,” said Trump, “you’re just a big whiner.
“I know what to do. I could do nothing finer,
“Than slap a big ban on travel from Chiner.

“Just look,” said Trump, “at that high S&P!
“And if things go south, I’ll just blame it on Xi.
“By April, you’ll see, when the weather gets right,
“This will all blow away like an old paper kite.”

Then he turned on his heels, pleased by his retort,
And flew off to play golf at a nice Trump Resort.

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